Alba's father, Mark, serves in the Air Force. Before she turns 9, Alba lives in Biloxi, Miss.; California; and Del Rio, Texas. Her father and mother, Cathy, finally settle in Southern California. Her early life is also marked by physical maladies. She suffers a collapsed lung twice, pneumonia, a burst appendix, a cyst on her tonsils and asthma.
Alba persuades her mother to take her to an acting competition in Beverly Hills where the grand prize is free acting classes. She wins the grand prize and takes her first acting lessons. An agent signs the 12-year-old nine months later.
Alba lands a part in the feature film comedy Camp Nowhere. She was originally hired for two weeks, but her role turns into a two-month job when another actress drops out. Alba is picked as the replacement because her hair matches that of the original actress. She goes on to work in commercials for Nintendo and J.C. Penny and lands a recurring role on the popular Nickelodeon comedy series The Secret World of Alex Mack.
She had a role in the dark Oscar-winning drama Leaving Las Vegas, but when her scenes are shelved in the film's final cut, Alba moves to Australia to star in the remake of the short-lived TV series Flipper. She enjoys herself there, telling Entertainment Weekly 10 years later, "I learned how to scuba dive, and I swam with dolphins in the middle of the ocean."
By the time Alba turns 15, her strict religious devotion begins to wane. "I did this episode of Chicago Hope playing a girl who had gonorrhea in her throat," she tells Entertainment Weekly, "and my friends from church made me feel so bad about it. Like I wasn't a good Christian. It started making me bitter toward the church." In the next few years, Alba films the comedy P.U.N.K.S., and makes appearances in several TV shows, including Beverly Hills, 90210, The Love Boat: The Next Wave and the crime drama Brooklyn South.
Out of 1,200 hopefuls, director James Cameron (Titanic) casts Alba as Max Guevara, the lead role on his Fox sci-fi series Dark Angel. "I was a smart-ass," Alba told Entertainment Weekly. "[The producers] liked that I had a smart mouth." To prepare for the role, Alba adopts an intense training regimen, saying later that she suffered from anorexia, starving herself and becoming obsessed with exercise, at one point even dropping to 100 lbs. "A lot of girls have eating disorders, and I did too," Alba told Glamour. "I got obsessed with it. When I went from a girl's body to a woman's body with natural fat in places, I freaked out."
Published reports begin to circulate that Alba, 19, is dating her Dark Angel costar Michael Weatherly, 32. That May, Alba becomes engaged to Weatherly. "People always have to make it sound so titillating," Weatherly says to TV Guide of the couple's age gap. "It's like people think my interest in Jessica could only be of a sexual nature, that it couldn't be emotional or intellectual. I find that really childish and mean-spirited." In August 2003, the pair splits. No reason is given, but the two remain friendly.
After taking the No. 1 spot on Maxim's Hot 100 list, Alba shows off her sexy side in her first big-screen star vehicle, Honey, playing a hip-hop choreographer who teaches inner-city kids to dance. "I never danced a day in my life," Alba says. "But I figured if I could train to fight in Dark Angel, I could train to dance."
A newly-single Alba dates Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia, whom she met in Las Vegas in early October. The two go out a few times, but by New Year's Eve the actress is spotted getting cozy with actor Mark Wahlberg in Miami Beach. "They were looking into each other's eyes," one onlooker tells PEOPLE, but the romance doesn't last.
Alba lands the role of a stripper in the Robert Rodriguez film Sin City. To research the part, Alba visits strip clubs in L.A., New York and Texas. She also learns to twirl a rope for the role. "I just spent every night in Texas in the Four Seasons [hotel] in my underwear, knocking over lamps trying to lasso things," Alba says in Interview. In the film, Alba strips only to a bikini, adhering to her no-nudity clause.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Splash News; Everett; 20th Century FOX/Everett; Axelle/Bauer-Griffin; Universal/Everett; Big Pictures; Dimension Films/Everett